Looking down from the top deck of a 71 bus a few days ago, I noticed a procession of Kingston University students gaily meandering back to Penrhyn Road in their graduation finery after a ceremony at the Rose Theatre. Having not that long ago got my own MBA (with distinction, bless) from Kingston, this sight brought a load of old memories to the surface – and more than a few conflicting thoughts right in the present tense.
You see, here in the UK startup world, there is a surprising amount of hostility – both from startup owners and from angels – towards MBAs, who are perceived as stuffed shirt McKinseyite clones who are more at home putting abstract 2×2 models on a whiteboard than dealing with anything mundane (you know: products, services, employees, customers, etc). That is: smug, overpaid, corporate lapdogs who’d rather be kissing VC butt or researching strategy [whatever that is] than doing anything practical, worthwhile or valuable.
I hate to say it, but that gallon of vitriol does contain at least a fluid ounce of truth. The MBA world and VC world are indeed quite well aligned, and as far as I know MBA courses have no lessons in any of the things you’d need to know about the practical world of starting up and running a business:-
- politics (mapping an industry’s connections, and working out how to make best use of them)
- negotiating from a position of weakness (because when you’re running a startup, that’s where you’re at)
- low-end financing (i.e. not via VCs, and don’t get me rapping on UK banks again)
- “pivoting” (the VC term for changing direction rapidly and decisively when what you’re doing manifestly doesn’t work)
- leading (MBAs are taught to be CTOs, not CEOs)
- making decisions based on anything apart from NPV (for startups, cash is king, while people are absolutely key too)
When it comes down to it, I think the whole MBA mindset is rooted in the 1960s Harvard Business School take on scientific management, which saw production as an intellectual resource optimization (and profit maximization) exercise within a static (or at least ‘near-constant’) business environment. But the world has changed: we don’t need Masters of Static Business Administration now, we need Masters of Dynamic Business Administration A.K.A. “Startup Kings” to rock the business boat.
But what kind of university would promote an MDBA course? As institutions, they are – almost by definition – pro-theoretic and anti-action, and over recent decades the kind of ‘progressivism’ at play there has amounted to little more than a progressive de-fanging. Why on earth would they build a course in what amounts to business revolution?
All the same, maybe some would: a friend of mine recently completed a degree in Activism (which seems similarly antithetical) at Leeds Uni, so perhaps there’s hope for an MDBA course after all…